Tito Ortiz’s political career was short and flashy before sparkling like a meteor plunging into the Pacific.
The former pro tem mayor of Huntington Beach has taken for the Donald Trump of Orange County, drawing national attention for calling COVID-19 a “plandemic” and “political sham” and for his confrontational refusal to wear a mask in public.
He recently resigned less than six months after starting his first and only term on city council, apparently finding the details of local governance – budget reviews, committee hearings, staff decisions – less fun than cruising his boat in Huntington Harbor with “Trump” and “Tito” flags waving.
Brief as it was, Ortiz’s stretch into petty politics reflects something much larger: a political culture that stimulates conflict, rewards intransigence, and empowers the loud and accusers, even if the polls show that most voters would prefer their lawmakers to give a portion of it if it means getting things done.
Increasingly, politicians from City Hall to Capitol Hill are being prompted – by the bases of the two main parties, the flow of campaign contributions, and the inordinate media attention they receive – to defend inflexible positions, to avoid compromise and to treat those who do not agree with them as evil and the enemy.
“The electorate as a whole is not there,” said Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic campaigner who heads the Institute for Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University. “This is where the big disconnect is.”
With Ortiz and other COVID deniers leading the charge, Orange County has become a hotbed of resistance to medical science and emergency health mandates. Some local leaders resisted a state order to close the beaches. The Orange County health director has resigned after receiving death threats and little support from a timid supervisory board.
(Prior to running for office, Ortiz, 46, was a professional mixed martial arts fighter, which he perhaps saw as training in how one is supposed to step into an elected position.)
And yet, in a poll conducted in the winter as the pandemic raged, an overwhelming majority of Orange County voters endorsed government efforts to stem the deadly virus, including social distancing and a nationwide mask mandate. Only about a quarter of those surveyed felt the government had gone too far.
“Political extremists are making the headlines, but a reasonable silent majority remains in our county,” said Fred Smoller, who teaches political science at Chapman University and helped conduct the poll.
There is room for vigorous debate, Smoller continued, which is both healthy and necessary in a functioning democracy. “But a small group of people protesting in Huntington Beach and the [Orange County] Hall of Administration “should not have intimidated elected officials, he said, or be seen to reflect the general sentiment of county residents.
But that’s one of the big problems in politics today: The system disproportionately empowers a rowdy minority and helps push lawmakers to extremes.
Thanks to the Internet, grassroots fundraising has exploded, diminishing the influence of corporate contributions and political action committees. (Yay for folks!) But it also happens that the best way to get people to open their wallets is to piss them off – “Give generously so I can negotiate thoughtfully, then settle for the best deal possible” n isn’t exactly a bugle call.
The perverse practice of letting many lawmakers design their own political constituencies sidelines both sides as well. (In California, this is done by an independent commission.) The lines are often written to minimize party competition and virtually ensure that a Democrat or Republican is elected. Thus, the biggest fear of many lawmakers is losing a primary, which attracts the most ideological and hard-line members of their party.
“These are the people who fund the campaigns and work in the campaigns and make the phone calls,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a seasoned Republican strategist, who has worked on the national polls Georgetown has conducted in recent years. ” They are the ones [lawmakers’] Facebook feeds tweet to them, so these are the people they see and hear. “
Polls have repeatedly shown that most voters consider themselves closer to the middle than to the boundaries of either major party, and they want their political leaders to be more willing to compromise.
In the latest Georgetown poll, voters ranked the country’s political divide as their top concern, a sentiment shared across partisan, racial and ideological lines.
The bipartisan poll of 1,000 registered voters nationwide also found that an overwhelming majority believed compromise to get results far more important than ideological purity, a finding consistent with other research.
There is no organism on Earth more sensitive to heat and light than a politician, so it’s no surprise that it responds to its loudest constituents, even though they represent a point minority view.
“This is the default position,” said Elleithee, the former Democrat. “Don’t take prisoners, don’t accept any compromises – because that’s what the party bases reward.”
None of this will change until politicians find it in their best interests to listen to those who are less vehement and ideologically entrenched.
In politics, as in nature, the loudest voices are heard. If people are fed up with extremes taking over political debate, they need to speak up more.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.